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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts


When Rudyard Kipling jokingly commented that England was not much larger than Yellowstone National Park, he was admitting his admiration for the geographical size of the American Republic, but he was not suggesting that Great Britain had diminished in political status. Kipling recorded his remark in 1899, at the height of English power, when that nation and the several other major states of Europe formed the center of a world system.

During the nineteenth century, European supremacy seemed assured. England prided itself on being the "workshop of the world," and certainly was its financial capital. The French fancied that their culture illuminated the globe, and, indeed, they had reason to think so, for theirs was the language of diplomats as well as of polite society. Germany attracted scholars to its great universities-and exported the Ph.D. to the United States-while at the end of the century its military establishment was the envy of foreign generals. Russia, still exhibiting the appearances of feudalism although the serfs had been freed in 1861, was nonetheless regarded with respect; it was the "sleeping giant." And even the Austro-Hungarian Empire, somewhat dilapidated in political form, was considered a major power and admired for its excellent railway equipment, as well as for its pastries and music. Finally, European flags flew over territories that were thousands of miles from their capital cities: overseas empire made Timbuktu an extension of France and brought the name of the English queen, Victoria, to various cities and physical sites located in Africa, Canada, Australia, and even Hong Kong.

"Eurocentric" is the word employed by historians to describe this unusually favorable world position enjoyed by the states of Europe. And that position today invites the interpretation of nineteenth-century world history in terms of the "Rise of the West" or the "Age of European Predominance."

Perhaps in the future, European history will find its meaningful chronological break, not in the eighteenth century when the Old Order of social privilege was shattered by revolution, but in 1945, amid the rubble of Berlin and before the awesome sight of the Made-in-America atomic bomb. Then, the preeminent role that Europe had played in world affairs for nearly four centuries was disastrously ended. Europe seemed to be reduced in political significance to a size matching the contours of its geographical limits. As before, in the fifteenth century, Western Europe could be regarded as a peninsular extension of the Eurasian land mass, one of the many regions of the world competing for scarce resources, dependent on outside sources of capital, and politically fragmented into units of no grand international consequence.

Reduced to simple analysis, the history of Europe in the last two hundred years is that of the extension and contraction of political power in the world, of the creation and redistribution of a global economic network, of cultural supremacy and cultural relativism. Yet the terms "rise" and "decline," so in fashion a few decades ago, must be guarded against. No historical development is ever neat and smooth. Consider that famine, disease, and economic depression were unfortunate characteristics during the "rise of Europe," just as technological and scientific innovations-radar and penicillin, for instance-were widely evident in Europe's era of "decline." The term "decline" is a particularly inaccurate one. Certainly, Europe's paramount position has been lost, but today most of the nations of that "Old Continent" are richer in goods, more prosperous in income, more educated in population, and more stable in social organization than ever before-and better off than most of those nations now comprising the other continents of the world.

What these up-and-down terms of movement really imply is this: instead of a European-centered world, our world today is polycentric. The military power of China; the industrial power of the United States, Russia, and Japan; the oil wealth of the Arab world-all suggest a new global scope of activities and a new set of regional centers of political-economic importance. No longer can the stereotyped Englishman say with condescension: "The world is divided into two groups: Englishmen and foreigners." In our time, the English are but one of the many international minorities.

Yet such new conditions do not invalidate the assertion that no other civilization at any time in recorded history witnessed such a remarkable transformation from within as did the European: political revolution, social reform, and technological innovation generally changed Europe from an old order of privilege, tradition, and fixed scale to a new order of social mobility, modernity, and expansiveness. Just as the old world appeared to be centered around the church spire and the village pump, the new one was centered around the parliament building, the railroad station, and the stock exchange.

A closer observation of this grand historical sweep, however, will reveal a clutter of persistent old ways. Alongside the great change and progress that restructured certain aspects of society and introduced new daily activities were found time-honored customs and traditions. For example, in the mid-nineteenth century, the English writer Samuel Smiles in his bestseller, Self-Help, wrote that the self-made man could rise to any height and stand straight among his fellow citizens. However, at the same time, the farmer in rural England took off his cap when addressed by the country squire, and the courtiers surrounding the emperor of Austria bowed low and curtsied gracefully. While independent citizens were voting for the representatives of their choice in French municipal elections, the king of Prussia was asserting that his political power emanated directly from God. Finally, by way of example, the French railroad system jumped from a total of 17,500 kilometers of track in 1870 to 49,500 in 1910, during which time the average French peasant, who still worked the land with a horse-drawn plow, never traveled farther than fifteen kilometers from home in his lifetime.

Change and continuity-the two conditions that are the foundation of historical analysis-affected every European institution or social practice of this time. The age was one of transition as much as of transformation, the on-going process or movement that has led all of us today to use the expression "What's new?" as a common and casual greeting. Those who were opposed and fearful, as well as those who were excited and hopeful, recognized that the key to an understanding of the age was change. In the words of the great nineteenth-century novelist Charles Dickens, written about the eighteenth century political upheaval known as the French Revolution:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us....
The uneven growth of nineteenth-century Europe and the mixed emotions it aroused were intensified in the twentieth century. The earthly happiness that had been promised by eighteenth-century philosophers was turned into living hell for soldiers and civilians involved in the two world wars. Military destruction forced change as civil reform had done before: the social existence of the vast number of Europeans was severely affected by the engines of war. As a result, the naive belief in progress disappeared from the contemporary scene just as had the walking stick and gold-backed currency. Yet, like that famous mythical bird, the phoenix, Europe rose from the ashes of the two world wars to become once again an important, if not the most important, center of the global economy. The standard of living rose in every European country. Television antennas appeared beside chimney pots on copper roofs, and automobiles crowded the narrow streets. The number of automobile fatalities began to rival war losses-as dreadful a sign of the unplanned effects of technological advancement as can be found.

Whether all of this can best be described as the "Americanization of Europe" or as a "New European Renaissance," the important point is that by the late 1950s Western Europe had once-for-all discarded most of the still evident elements of its past and had joined in a transatlantic community, which has as its most common features the Boeing 747 jet airliner, rock music groups, camera-toting tourists, extensive use of drugs, shortages of crude oil, and a variety of blue jeans.

The essay that follows is an introduction to the historical problems of this two-hundred-year-long age that was both "the best of times" and "the worst of times." The approach is cultural, an effort to study major institutions and the values and ideas that formed them-yet with attention also focused on the social environment in which Europeans of the time lived.

NEXT:  The Reordering of Europe:1789-1871

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